The Cubans without a stable roof over their heads
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Havana
Ten families defied the risks and lived in the old convent before it
On Monday morning, a column collapsed bringing four storeys of the old
convent crashing down and burying 50-year-old Maria Isabel Fernandez
under the rubble.
For 24 hours, rescue teams battled to reach her.
When their radars and even specially trained sniffer rabbits found no
signs of life, they moved to securing the rest of the ruins and
recovering her body.
The story of Ms Fernandez is not an unusual one in a city where neglect,
lack of funds and a series of devastating hurricanes have left chunks of
the housing stock in a poor to perilous state.
Officials say that on average two buildings completely collapse in
Havana every month.
The old convent where Ms Fernandez lived was used as a school after the
1959 Cuban revolution, until part of a corridor caved in and the
children had to be relocated.
But 10 families went on living there.
“We had nowhere else to go,” one of the residents told me, as family and
friends formed a human chain behind him to recover what remained of
“The conditions were terrible. But it was that, or live in the street –
and we have children. We needed a roof over our heads,” he said.
As we talked, a crowd gathered.
The residents told me they went to the housing authorities for help just
last week, after the first support column cracked.
A meeting to discuss the situation had been planned – for Monday night.
“No-one came before,” a resident called Ismailo said, gesturing towards
a huddle of local government officials and police nearby.
“Now they’re all here.”
It was one of the tenets of Cuba’s communist revolution that everyone
had the right to a house. But today’s harsh economic reality has knocked
a dent in that ideal.
The most recent figures reveal a deficit of some 600,000 houses on the
island; this month the state housing institute admitted it cannot put up
new properties fast enough.
A move to allow Cubans to build their own houses for the first time,
rather than depend on the state, has been a slow starter.
The result is serious overcrowding and thousands stuck in supposedly
temporary housing for many years, a situation that is especially acute
in the capital.
Worst of all are the building collapses, and it is not just a problem of
Inside Malecon 161, on Havana’s sun-soaked seafront, you have to pick
your way through wooden props supporting the ceiling to reach the empty
space where several apartments used to be.
It is five years since part of an abandoned building standing behind it
collapsed and destroyed the apartments.
One man was killed, but 20 people are still here amid the ruins, waiting
to be rehoused.
“When it rains heavily, like recently, I do get alarmed,” pensioner Jose
He says some “priority” cases were given flats on the city’s outskirts,
other neighbours are in state-run shelters nearby.
“I sometimes go outside because I’m afraid the building won’t hold,” he
“I pretend I’m contemplating the downpour, but in fact I’m keeping my
eye on the building.”
Further down the Malecon, another precarious-looking building has
finally been fenced off for demolition.
Some of its residents were rehoused to far-flung suburbs; others secured
flats nearby. The rest have squeezed in with family or moved into state
shelters while they wait for a new home to be finished.
The fate of that new building offers some insight into Cuba’s housing
Construction began four years ago, but neighbours say there were never
enough workers for the job and the much-coveted building supplies were
But this month, a new boss was drafted in with materials and orders to
finish the place – and the block is at last taking shape.
In Cuban socialist style, residents have joined the “construction
brigade” to help out.
“It’s over a year since we were moved out of our house because it was
going to collapse,” former resident Graviela recalls, saying she is
currently living with relatives.
“Now we’re here, waiting for this place to be finished, so we can be happy.”
But the dire lack of such alternatives has helped contribute to
tragedies like the one this week in Vibora.
“The need for housing is higher than the capacity we have to build. It
is a problem,” admitted Ines Barroso, a local government official
outside the collapsed convent.
She said solutions were sought over the years to provide better housing
for the 10 families who lived there.
An initial plan to reinforce and renovate the convent was ruled out. The
families were then to be offered land and credit to build their own
houses. But they say neither materialised.
Now that the worst has happened, some cannot contain their anger.
“They’ve been promising solutions for years. But it’s all been lies and
we’re tired of it. Now we’ve lost a woman who was like a mother to me,”
Yurliany Tamayo cried, unusually vocal for Cuba.
She says she managed to snatch her own child back from the edge, just in
Ms Tamayo and the other residents are staying with friends for now; the
authorities have yet to propose a more permanent solution.
But as the digger continues its slow work shifting the rubble, there is
already concern about the parts of the building still standing.
“If they don’t demolish this place now, people will move in here,” one
“We would never take the risk after what happened here. But others would
prefer to be here than to have nowhere.”
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